I don’t remember when I first fell in love with nonfiction.
It likely happened sometime between college (when I used to ditch my required reading lists for novels like Slaughterhouse-Five and Paper Towns and Fahrenheit 451) and the summer I moved out of my parents’ house to take a job in the Bay Area. I was still feeling my way through adult life, through intersectional feminism, through paying rent and managing difficult bosses and deciding whether or not I still believed in God, and I was ready to grab whatever road map I could find.
For months, I doused myself in nonfiction. I scoured Goodreads for recommendations and secondhand shops for cheap books. I devoured essay collections on the train every morning and indulged in memoirs on the weekends. I started rethinking my previous biases about everything: sexism, racism, LGBTQ+ rights, nutrition, humane animal treatment, and, well, the importance of reading more literature.
I credit many of these books with helping shape my current values and perspectives. Like any piece of media — any television show or film, any popular blog or news site — books have incredible power to change the way we move through the world. And I can comfortably say that had I not opened myself up to reading about experiences and opinions other than my own, I wouldn’t be the person I am today.
Of course, I recognize that this is an ongoing process. I may never be as educated or well-informed as I want to be, but I know that I have the resources to keep learning — just as long as I can make the time to read.
Below are the five nonfiction books that have had the biggest impact on me during the last decade. Within their covers, I think, is a partial answer to one of my favorite questions: What media has had the most profound impact on your life so far?*
1. Bad Feminist: Essays by Roxane Gay
“We should disavow the failures of feminism without disavowing its many successes and how far we have come.”
In the first part of two essays that address the problem of the “bad feminist,” Gay challenges the often-held, sometimes-unspoken belief that there is a right way and a wrong way to be a feminist.
“I bought into grossly inaccurate myths about who feminists are — militant, perfect in their politics and person, man-hating, humorless. I bought into these myths even though, intellectually, I know better,” she says. “I’m not proud of this. I don’t want to buy into these myths anymore. I don’t want to cavalierly disavow feminism like far too many other women have done.”
“Bad feminism seems like the only way I can both embrace myself as a feminist and be myself, and so I write.”
I was new to the entire idea of feminism when I found this book at Barnes & Noble in the summer of 2014. I was so, so painfully new to the idea, in fact, that I mistakenly thought that it was a relatively new movement.
“It seems like this has been a hot topic in the media lately,” I wrote at the time, embarrassingly ignorant of the long, fraught history of the fight for equal rights between men and those who fall outside that narrow bracket of gender identity.
We all start somewhere, though, and while I may wish I had gotten an earlier jump on my education about women’s rights, racism, intersectionality (the list is endless), I’m simply grateful that I started down this path in the first place.
Gay’s essays are delightfully varied and candid, from her critique of Django Unchained (billed as a “white man’s slavery revenge fantasy, one where white people figure heavily and where black people are, largely, incidental”) to her enduring love for Sweet Valley High and her problem complying with trigger warnings. Deceptively bite-sized and re-readable, the essays are anything but light and pithy, instead providing a clear jumping off point for further discussion about the state of our society and the ills that continue to plague it.
2. Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer
“My vegetarianism, so bombastic and unyielding in the beginning, lasted a few years, sputtered, and quietly died. I […] found ways to smudge, diminish, and forget it. Generally speaking, I didn’t cause hurt. Generally speaking, I strove to do the right thing. Generally speaking, my conscience was clear enough.”
For some people, it’s Blackfish. Or a graphic video put out by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Or a photograph, a tweet, a conversation.
Sooner or later, we’re all forced to confront the truth about the food we put in our bodies. Food that, for the majority of Americans, comes from a specific kind of place where animals live in misery, die in agony, and are processed as expeditiously as possible for our consumption.
Like many activists before and after him, Foer doesn’t shy away from the stomach-churning realities of factory farming. Well before I reached the final page of his book, I had already sworn off factory-farmed meat and was toying with the idea of going vegetarian. Like Foer, however, my resolve weakened as my anger dissipated, and it wasn’t long before I found myself justifying reasons to purchase and ingest animal products once again (feeling even guiltier now, as I knew a little about the backstory behind every can of tuna and slab of bacon).
Foer doesn’t offer any catch-all solutions to the problem of factory farming (a high bar to clear for any book), nor does he compel his readers to turn to veganism as a limited, if conscience-clearing fix. What begins as a riveting exposé mellows into a study of animal defenders and consumers, from farmers who practice humane animal husbandry to PETA fanatics and rogue animal activists. It’s a thoughtful reckoning with the intersecting issues of animal rights and ethical consumption, and one that I can’t stop thinking about years later.
3. Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids by Meghan Daum (ed.)
“Selfishness and generosity are not relegated to particular life choices, and if generosity is a worthy life goal — and I believe it is — perhaps our task is to choose that path that or us creates its best opportunity.”
It’s difficult to explain the profound impact this collection of essays has had on my life without also veering into intensely personal territory. Suffice to say, I recognize that I’m in a position of great privilege to even be able to consider whether or not I want to have children, and many of these essays helped me explore potential solutions to that dilemma in more nuanced ways.
These essays vary in tone and subject far more than the title of the collection suggests, and my favorites are the ones that wrestle with feelings of loss and conflict. In a poignant piece titled, “Beyond Beyond Motherhood,” for example, essayist Jeanne Safer explains the importance of grieving her decision not to have children:
“Taking this route to self-fulfillment required that I pay attention to what I really felt, as opposed to what I was supposed to feel, or wished I did,” she writes. “Only then could I grieve for the lost possibilities that lay in all I was ruling out; grieving for the road not taken is a healthy thing to do.” Later, she concludes, “There is no life without regrets.”
As I navigated my early 20s, I realized that these were the kinds of questions I needed to be asking myself (again, questions I was lucky to be able to ask myself). What did my future look like? How was I empowered to shape it beyond the rules and restrictions I once forced myself to adhere to?
4. Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive by Julia Serano
“Let’s embrace ambivalence, and learn how to talk about both the good and the bad, both the empowering and disempowering aspects of being a gendered and sexual person. Let’s find ways to discuss both the ecstasy and the difficulties of being embodied, making life choices, finding love, and having sex, all while navigating our way through the minefields of stereotypes, norms, and hierarchies.”
There are books that can (and should) be scarfed down in a single setting, and then there are those — like many on this list — that require more deliberate mastication.
Serano leaves readers with plenty to digest in Excluded, an ambitious dissection of queer issues, biphobia, transphobia, and intersectional feminism that comes together in a dense personal narrative. It’s an imperfect study, as is any body of work that attempts to tackle such a wide range of complex topics, but one that resonated with me as I began to feel my way through an understanding of feminist theory in the early 2010s.
Serano’s thoughtful critiques introduced me to the concept of layered marginalization and the necessity of weaponizing privilege against double standards — particularly those that may not have a direct effect on the way we personally connect to our society and the world at large.
“When we become invested in an us-versus-them narrative, where we are righteous do-gooders who are committed to overturning some kind of external evil force, then we will likely be resistant to the idea that we ourselves may sometimes act in sexist or marginalizing ways toward others,” Serano reveals.
She then adds, “Thinking about sexism and marginalization in terms of myriad double standards implores us to challenge all double standards: those that are prevalent, and those that are rare; those that negatively impact us, and those that negatively impact others; those that we are currently aware of, as well as those that are currently unknown to us.”
I can’t pretend to always have my privilege (white, middle class, cisgender, straight-passing) in check, but thanks to some of the chapters here, I have a constant reminder to look outside of myself and my own experiences as I interact with those around me.
5. The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women by Jessica Valenti
“Making women the sexual gatekeepers and telling men they just can’t help themselves not only drives home the point that women’s sexuality is unnatural, but also sets up a disturbing dynamic in which women are expected to be responsible for men’s sexual behavior.”
I was lucky to find Jessica Valenti’s work when I did. Do you ever feel that way about certain books? That if you hadn’t stumbled across them at precisely the right moment, they may not have had the opportunity to shape your life in as profound a way?
When I first read The Purity Myth, I was just beginning the process of shedding the thought patterns and behaviors I had learned within a restrictive Christian culture. It took me years to unlearn the things my youth pastors and family friends had drilled inside my head: sex is inherently shameful; abstinence is the only appropriate form of birth control; girls and women are the gatekeepers of men’s raging sexual urges; women’s physical “purity” (read: a socially-constructed idea of virginity) is a reflection of the state of their souls; extramarital sex is a damnable and heartbreaking offense, the list goes on… and on and on and on.
Here, however, I found a balm for the toxic thoughts I struggled to excise. Valenti writes passionately about the flaws of such a virginity- and sexuality-obsessed culture. She takes a microscope to everything from the definition of ‘virginity’ to the politics of sexual assault and the way stereotypes of masculinity and femininity play off of each other — to the detriment of all involved.
That said, I wasn’t immediately ready to dismantle all of my beliefs when I picked up this book six years ago. (I no longer believe that any one book contains all the answers I need in life.) Contrary to everything I had been warned about, “losing” faith in something isn’t a one-and-done kind of decision, but rather a gradual, painful awakening to reality. It would take me many more years (and books) to get to the point where I no longer considered myself a religious person. Still, Valenti’s book was a definite eye-opener, and, more importantly, gave me space to start questioning the things I had been led to believe about my own agency and life choices.
There are so many other wonderful books I left off of this list: Spinster by Kate Bolick, Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution by Mona Eltahawy, The Ethical Slut by Janet W. Hardy and Dossie Easton, Bi: Notes for a Bisexual Revolution by Shiri Eisner, Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit, Cannery Row by John Steinbeck, Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear… and Why by Sady Doyle, Shrill by Lindy West, How to Be a Heroine: Or, What I’ve Learned from Reading Too Much by Samantha Ellis, Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend by Elinor Nauen (ed.), The Vagina Monologues by Eve Ensler, Thinking in Numbers by Daniel Tammet.
The beautiful thing about this exercise is that my answers are bound to change over the next decade or so. I hope that when I return to this topic in the future, I find there are many more books that have influenced my feminism, shaped my ethics and values, and taught me to look at this weird, wide world through new lenses.
*H/t to Hank Green for the inspiration behind today’s blog post, as it originally stemmed from an especially thought-provoking question on a job posting at Complexly.